Weblogs Are Free, Diverse, and Equal. Broacast Media Can Be, Too

by John Adams

The recent article The FCC, Weblogs, and Inequality, is not brilliant. Rather, it is a fundamentally misinformed and badly argued comparison of weblogs and traditional media.

How wrong is it? It's wrong on nearly every count.

Shirky's major points:

1. What is clear, however, is a lesson from the weblog world: inequality is a natural component of media. For people arguing about an ideal media landscape, the tradeoffs are clear: Diverse. Free. Equal. Pick two.

2. A core assumption in this debate is that if media were free of manipulation, the audience would be more equally distributed, so the concentration of a large number of viewers by a small number of outlets is itself evidence of impermissible control.

3. [I]n this free, decentralized, diverse, and popular medium [weblogs] we find astonishing inequality, inequality so extreme it makes the distribution of television ratings look positively egalitarian.

4. [T]he debate on media concentration can now be sharpened to a single question: if inequality is a fact of life, even in diverse and free systems, what should our reaction be?

5. There are three coherent positions in this debate:

  1. The first is advocacy of free and equal media, which requires strong upper limits on overall diversity.

  2. The second coherent position is advocacy of diverse and equal media, which requires constraints on freedom.

    1. This is the position taken by the FCC, who yesterday altered regulations rather than removing them. (There can obviously be strong disagreement within this group about the kind and degree of regulations.)

    2. More problematic for people who hold this view are unequal but unconstrained media such as weblogs. As weblogs grow in importance, we can expect at least some members of the "diverse and equal" camp to advocate regulation of weblogs, on the grounds that the imbalance between Glenn Reynolds of InstaPundit.com and J. Random Blogger is no different than the imbalance between Clear Channel and WFMU.

  3. The third coherent position is advocacy of diverse and free media, which requires abandonment of equality as a goal.
    1. While the "diverse and equal" camp is advocating regulation and therefore an articulation of the status quo, people who believe that our goals should be diversity and freedom and damn the consequences haven't had much effect on the traditional media landscape to date, so we have very little evidence on the practical effect of their proposals.

6. Though the FCC's ruling is portrayed as deregulation, it is nothing of the sort. It is simply different regulation, and it adjusts percentages within a system of scarcity, rather than undoing the scarcity itself.

7. The one incoherent view is the belief that a free and diverse media will naturally tend towards equality.

8. The best thing that could come from the lesson of weblog popularity would be an abandoning of the idea that there will ever be an unconstrained but egalitarian media utopia, a realization ideally followed by a more pragmatic discussion between the "diverse and free" and "diverse and equal" camps.

I take issue with every one of those points.

1. Weblogs are a fundamentally egalitarian form, in which it is not necessary to trade freedom or diversity for equality, or to trade off between freedom and diversity. This is not true of broadcast media today or in the near future.

2. Concentration of large audiences is not the issue per se, but barriers to entry and the inability of the new to displace the old. Media concentration as promoted by the FCC's action of June 2 is wrong because it raises barriers and increases the power of the old over the new, not because media concentration is bad in and of itself. (Attentive readers will note that point two above is a strawman argument.)

3. The inequality Shirky refers to is inequality of result, not of opportunity or of access. The question before the FCC was a question of opportunity and access--of limits in size of potential audience, not limits on results in reaching it.

4. Not all inequalities are equal, or even alike. They aren't even necessarily comparable. See my point three above.

5. There are many other coherent positions in this debate than the three generated by Shirky's flawed "Pick two" trichotomy. (Note: Is this a di-trichotomy, a bi-trichotomy, a semi-trichotomy, a duo-trichotomy, a hemi-powered-drones-scream-down-the-boulevard-trichotomy, or what? How do we describe a two-of-three choice versus a one-of-three choice? Is there precise jargon for these situations?)

  1. The position that freedom, diversity, and equality are of no concern whatsoever except as they affect the bottom line. (Note: See Shirky's points 5.b.i and 6 for an alternative characterization of the FCC's action of June 2.)

  2. The position that only one of the three qualities matters and that the other two are of no concern whatsoever. (See his point 8 for a form of this argument for diversity, first disregarding concern for equality, then for freedom.)

  3. The position that freedom, diversity, and equality, each in moderation, are attainable in one place and at one time. (This is closest to my position, as it answers a well-known question: WWMAD? or What Would Marcus Aurelius Do?)

  4. The trade-offs among freedom, diversity, and equality are neither zero-sum nor linear. (I think this is true, too.)

  5. Shirky's point 5.c.i fails if you disagree with his characterization of the FCC's action in points 5.b.i and 6. It also fails on factual grounds when applied to a broader variety of media than he considers.

  6. His point 5.b.ii is a straw man argument.

6. While this is true in a very narrow sense, it seems perverse to describe a significant act of deregulation as an act of regulation as usual. What lies unarticulated under this argument? Spectrum reform and smart radio. The unspoken claim is that we don't have to have spectrum scarcity any more, that it's an artificial and out-moded restriction. This is becoming true, but isn't true yet, nor will it be completely true for some time.

7. There are many incoherent views about media concentration, but the one cited above isn't incoherent as, contrary to his assertion, weblogs are a free and diverse medium which is also clearly an egalitarian medium.

8. Weblogs are a "an unconstrained [and] egalitarian media utopia"--okay, not a utopia. But close enough.

That's the outline of a critique. I'm going to write a fuller response on my home weblog over the next day or two, and probably an update here when it's finished.

P.S. The quote below about John Adams comes from Joseph Ellis' Founding Brothers. Attribution will follow.

Have I missed the point? Where? How? Tell me.